Throughout my career at Hivpoint, I have done sexual health work targeted at men who have sex with men. When I came to work at Hivpoint 15 years ago (at the time AIDS Council), I learned to define my work in such a way that it is HIV prevention work aimed at gay, bi and other men who have sex with men. Although the guidelines on how to protect from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections do not differ much based on how men who have sex with men identify themselves, it may be necessary to take this into account for other reasons. For example, how do you reach these “other men who have sex with men”. The majority of gay or bisexual men can be reached through virtual and physical meeting places at gay community, it is not as easy to reach heterosexual men who have sex with men.
In Finland, there is no research data on men who have sex with men but do not have a gay or bi identity. There is some research data in Finland and stories in the media concerning women and flexibility of heterosexual sexuality (often called sexual fluidity, heteroflexibility or mostly straight) and the possibility of sex between women. On the other hand, in other parts of the world there is also studies on men who have sex with men who identify as heterosexual. I have become acquainted with a few of the studies, which are discussed in this writing.
Today, Saturday 19.11, is International Men’s Day, and I would like to do my part to highlight those men who very seldom get any attention.
Assumptions about sexuality are often too narrow
For many of us, it’s typical to assume that sexuality is permanent and clearly defined: you are either heterosexual, gay or bisexual. However, sexuality is more diverse than this. Sexuality can be expressed and realized on many other levels and dimensions. Of these different levels, the levels of sexual behavior and emotions are most often mentioned, but in addition, the levels can also include romanticism, spirituality, sensuality, and esthetics. If all these levels are taken into account, it’s easier to understand that defining sexuality and sexual orientation is not simple.
Although many men have their identity, behavior and emotions exclusively directed at men, it is also possible and normal that a man identifies as heterosexual but has sex with men.
Who are “the other men who have sex with men”
Perhaps the most famous and most prominent in the English-language media in recent years has been the studies of Toni Silva who is a Professor of Sociology. He has published a book called: Still Straight, Sexual Flexibility among White Men in Rural America in 2021, the book is based on his studies. Silva’s research examines the lives of 60 white men who identify as heterosexual living in rural areas or small towns. In his book, Silva refers to a U.S.-based, national survey that found that hundreds of thousands of American heterosexual men have had sex with several men. Not all these men are closeted gay or bisexual men. Nor are they all just experimenting.
While it might be tempting to think that straight men who have sex with men might have lost their masculinity and especially their hetero identity, this was not the case in the lives of the men Silva interviewed. They had, in fact, reflected on their masculinity and hetero identity significantly more than most heterosexual men who have taken their masculinity mostly as a given. This together with the hetero-assumptions and norms coming from the society can end up building their hetero identity stronger than many heterosexual men who only have sex with women have.
Heteronormativity affects identity and sex
Sure, this does not mean that the men interviewed by Silva have gotten rid of the demands and norms of heteronormativity, but that they have managed, despite the norms and in fact supported by these norms, to produce for themselves a strong hetero identity and at the same time to engage in sex between men. The men Silva interviewed strictly separated their identities from sex between men, but concealed sex with men and the associated meeting culture from their wives and girlfriends. However, with female spouses, they had both sex and romantic relationships to which they were engaged and emotionally attached.
According to Silva, the men interviewed had very different situations and experiences in their lives, but all of them participated and assimilated into heteroculture and the groups, institutions and communities that belong to it. As with girlfriends and wives, relationships and sex between men were also completely concealed from communities belonging to hetero culture, the interviewees believed that their lifestyle would not have received support and approval if they had been open about it.
There are many types of “bud-sex”
An interview article in The Queerty magazine says that Tony Silva is best known for the concept of bud-sex. The 60 heterosexual men interviewed by Silva practiced this bud-sex with men in a diverse way: 95% had oral sex, 53% had anal sex, 5% mostly mutually masturbated with male sexual partners. Of the 32 men who had anal sex more than few times, 31% mostly bottomed, 31% were versatile and 38% mostly topped. So I don’t know if this would work as a slogan, but you could say that bud-sex is also butt-sex.
Other books on the same topic can be found in English
Tony Silva’s book is worth checking out, but there are other books in English that deal with sex between men not only by gay or bisexual men. One book I have explored was written in 2015 by Professor Jane Ward: Not Gay, sex between straight white men. Ward’s book focuses more on products of popular culture rather than interviews in the same way as Silva. For someone starts reading Ward’s book, it’s good if you’ve already become more familiar with feminist research. Of course, also Silva’s book is largely based on feminist research, which of course is only a positive thing, because feminist, and especially intersectional feminist research, is the best way to study and describe the gender and sexuality produced by normativity.
This day is a great day to remember that male sexuality is diverse and cannot be put in narrow compartments. Heterosexual men are more than just “players” who desire women, the playing fields of their sexuality are more versatile than is commonly known. Happy International Men’s Day!
Teppo Heikkinen, Hivpoint